Posts Tagged ‘J-1 visa’

Exploitation Isn’t ‘Cultural Exchange’ – Op-Ed by NGA’s Jennifer Rosenbaum

Exploitation Isn’t ‘Cultural Exchange’
Roll Call

Jennifer J. Rosenbaum
July 19, 2013

In a July 15 Roll Call opinion piece, “Don’t Devalue Exchange Programs in Immigration Reform,” Michael Petrucelli argues that the Senate immigration bill was wrong to include basic labor protections for the more than 100,000 student guestworkers who come to the U.S. each year through the J-1 visa program. Petrucelli argues that these workers aren’t really workers, but cultural exchange participants, and that the J-1 Exchange Visitor program isn’t really a guestworker program, but a tool of public diplomacy.

Mr. Petrucelli’s view of the program is several decades behind the times. The J-1 program was created in 1965 as a Cold War-era diplomatic tool—a way to convince young visitors from around the world of the virtues of American culture. But today’s J-1 student guestworkers know what even program staff now admit: the J-1 program has been transformed by employers into a vast, poorly regulated, low-wage temp worker program, where severe exploitation is par for the course.

That’s precisely why immigration reform needs to extend basic labor protections to future J-1 guestworkers — together with all immigrant workers.

Abuse in the J-1 program became too big to ignore in the summer of 2011, when 400 student guestworkers went on strike from the Hershey’s Chocolate packing plant in Palmyra, Pa., protesting brutal conditions, sub-minimum wage pay and a complete lack of any cultural exchange. The story demonstrated how major U.S. corporations were exploiting the program as a way to undercut local workers: the positions the students filled had previously been permanent, living-wage jobs with a union contract. Then Hershey’s fired those workers and used layers of subcontractors to replace them with a year-round succession of exploitable J-1 students.

In the aftermath of the Hershey revelation, the U.S. State Department, which administers the J-1 visa program, admitted that the program was out of control:

“In the midst of unfettered program growth, ECA lost sight of the original intent of some J visa programs,” the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General wrote in February 2012. “The OIG team questions the appropriateness of allowing what are essentially work programs to masquerade as cultural exchange activities.”

The State Department made some changes to the J-1 Summer Work Travel program to try to curb employer abuse, including barring the construction, manufacturing and food processing industries from the program. Acknowledging how far the program had fallen from its original purpose, the State Department said that future job placements “must provide opportunities for participants to interact regularly with U.S. citizens and experience U.S. culture during the work portion of their programs.”

The changes didn’t go far enough. This February, another major case of J-1 program abuse emerged at McDonald’s restaurants in Central Pennsylvania. Again, in place of “cultural exchange,” student guestworkers from around the world faced sub-minimum wage pay and overpriced, substandard housing. The abuse sparked a day of protest against McDonald’s labor abuse in more than 30 countries this June.

Mr. Petrucelli says that as immigration reform moves forward, “it will be important to remain mindful of those things that add value to the nation.” He’s right.

Every time a J-1 guestworker defies threats of firing and deportation to come forward and expose abuse, it adds value to the nation. It protects the job quality of tens of millions of U.S. workers by preventing a race to the bottom.

The worker protections in the Senate bill were supported by J-1 sponsors who agree that there is no place for workplace exploitation in the program. Mr. Petrucelli is in the minority in his support for the worst kind of “cultural exchange” — one that rewards abusive employers and offers students no protections.

The provisions received bipartisan support in the Senate, as they should in the House. Anyone who believes in the value of true cultural exchange as well as the dignity of work — for immigrant and U.S. workers — should support them.

 http://www.rollcall.com/news/exploitation_isnt_cultural_exchange_commentary-226475-1.html?pg=2

Labor abuse complaints lodged by midstate foreign student workers help spur federal legislation – PennLive – 6/10/13

Labor abuse complaints lodged by midstate foreign student workers help spur federal legislation
PennLive

Eric Veronikis
June 10, 2013

Labor abuse complaints lodged by foreign students who worked for two central Pennsylvania employers during the past two years helped produce legislation pending in the U.S. Senate, which advocates said would “go a long way” toward preventing similar situations in the future.

International students who worked for a third-party vendor at a Hershey Co. packing plant in Palmyra, and students employed by a Middletown-based McDonald’s franchisee, held a series of work-stoppage protests in August 2011 and March of this year.

The students said they paid exorbitant fees to participate in a cultural work exchange program through the U.S. Department of State’s Summer Work Travel Program, which provided little cultural enrichment and ample amounts of backbreaking work for little pay.

The latest controversy involved students working at some midstate McDonald’s franchises who were being housed in properties owned by the restaurants’ proprietor, Andy Cheung.

Following a protest organized March 6 with help from the National Guestworker Alliance at Cheung’s golden arches on Trindle Road in Hampden Township, international students filed complaints with the U.S. Department of State.

They said Cheung forced them to work double and triple shifts without overtime, while stuffing up to eight at a time in the basements of his houses, where they lived as he deducted rent from their minimum wage paychecks.

To promote the passage of Senate Bill 744, which would establish safeguards and severe penalties against recruiters and employers who take advantage of foreign workers, students formerly employed at the Hershey’s site and at Cheung’s restaurants, and anti-labor abuse advocates spoke about the need for program reform during a Monday morning teleconference with reporters.

“Some of the students were really afraid, and didn’t want to be part of (the protests),” said Decibal Bilan, a Romanian student who worked at Hershey’s Palmyra packing plant. “Now, after all this, I hope this should change, and new law should offer support.”

S. 744 has received bi-partisan support, and the Senate is expected to adopt the measure before it adjourns for its July 4 recess.

The legislation, which was crafted by four Republicans and four Democrats who have been dubbed the “Gang of Eight,” was taken up by the Senate, on Monday. It’s considered an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.

The U.S. House is expected to take up its own immigration legislation in August, and hearings could produce a law that would instill more protection for students in the U.S. Department of State program by the fall.
S. 744 also speaks to the human trafficking epidemic that exists in the United States, and would include protections for migrant workers.

It would do the following to protect foreign student workers:

  • Create a registration requirement, which would force foreign worker recruiters to notify the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to identify and register the employees they are recruiting;
  • Require a background check of recruiters to ensure they haven’t broken the law;
  • Require recruiters to post bond to cover the wages of workers they employ;
  • Require recruiters to identify employers, the work students will do and the wages and type of visas they will use;
  • Allow workers to bring complaints to DHS, with the ability to file civil charges.
  • Limit recruiter fees;
  • Bar recruiters who violate SB744 from the program for a period of time;
  • Protect workers against retaliation and deportation, both of which have been threatened by employers, as cases are investigated;
  • Carry fines of $10,000 per violation in civil lawsuits. Fines could be imposed per worker. Statutory penalties of up to $500,000 also could be imposed.

Much of the public controversy has centered on jobs in the hospitality industry, but similar situations have surfaced in the teaching and health care fields, according to experts who participated in Monday’s discussion.

A worker would have three years to file a complaint with DHS, under S. 744.

And if a decision has not been made within 180 days of filing a complaint, the worker could file a grievance against the employer with a federal District Court, said Sarah Rempel, policy attorney for Centro de los Derechos del Migrante Inc.

“We are all clear on what has been reported in media. These provisions should easily gain bipartisan support,” Rempel said of whether similar legislation will win approval in the House.

“What has been striking to our group is that regardless of sector, or visa category, there are common abuses” covered by S. 744.

Bruce Goldstein, president of advocacy organization, Farmworker Justice, said many employers prefer guest workers over American workers, who are not under the same economic pressures and put up with terrible working conditions for fear of losing their jobs and being deported.

Ingrid Cruz, a teacher from the Phillippines, paid more than $15,000 for an opportunity to become a robotics teacher in Louisiana.

She and other foreign teachers working in Louisiana paid recruiting agencies between $15,000 to $20,000 to teach in the U.S.

After taking on high-interest loans and even selling family dwellings at home, some foreign teachers were forced to sign one-sided contracts that favored the recruitment agencies, she said.

They also had to contend with high rent and visa violations created by the same agency, she said.

“I can still remember how difficult it was to sign a one-sided contract, with conditions only favorable to this agency,” Cruz said. “Considering we were left with nothing to go back to, we were left with no other choice at this time.”

The U.S. Department of Labor has confirmed that it is investigating the complaints filed by seven of the foreign student workers employed by Cheung.

And the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which oversees the Summer Work Travel Program, is nearing the end of its investigation of GeoVisions, the New Hampshire-based host company that worked with Cheung to bring the students to the midstate, a bureau official said.

When asked to comment on the student allegations, Cheung, who is still operating his restaurants but is in the process of selling the six midstate locations at the request of McDonald’s Corp., said he has yet to receive any type of reprimand from authorities.

Should it be adopted, S. 744 has key protections that would allow workers to remain in the U.S. and participate in investigations as worker abuse complaints are investigated, Goldstein said.

“We believe this bill is a huge step forward,” he said.

http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2013/06/students_advocates_promote_fed.html#incart_m-rpt-1

Senate Bill Sets Stage for Dignified Immigration Reform

Workers Prepare to Bring Voices to DC as Guestworker Programs Expand

The following statement is by Saket Soni, Executive Director of the National Guestworker Alliance:

With the introduction of the long-awaited Senate bill on immigration, American politics are finally starting to catch up with the American people. The U.S. public overwhelmingly supports a fair path to citizenship, an end to deportations, and strong protections for workers’ rights. This bill recognizes that. This bill is a new starting point in the national conversation about inclusion in democracy and a fair economy.

The Senate bill includes important worker protections from the POWER Act for immigrant workers who blow the whistle on employer abuse. Without these protections, employers use threats of retaliation and deportation to silence whistleblowers and get away with abuse. The bill also allows immigrant workers to demand back pay and reinstatement when they face retaliatory termination.

Still, the bill’s worker protections don’t go far enough. Only strong workers can build a strong economy, and this bill continues to leave immigrant workers vulnerable to abuse.

It is now clear that any immigration reform will come with a vast expansion of guestworker programs. Without strong worker protections in all of these programs—not only the new W visa program, but all existing programs—this expansion is a recipe for disaster, both for immigrant workers and the U.S. workers who work alongside them.

Employers looking to cut costs unlawfully will not use the W visa program as long as they can source cheaper, more exploitable workers through an expanded H-2B program—which is exactly what this bill gives them. The bill exempts returning H-2B guestworkers from the visa cap, which will vastly expand the H-2B program. The bill also fails to provide critical protections for H-2B workers, including the ability to change jobs and enforce their rights.

This means guestworkers will continue to be trapped in captive labor by abusive employers, and U.S. workers will be trapped in a race to the bottom as employers use guestworkers to drive down wages and conditions for all.

Americans know that a 21st-century economy needs to be built on strong labor protections for all workers. In a new poll of 1,000 Americans, 90 percent agreed that “immigration reform should protect the rights of both U.S.-born and immigrant workers because all workers deserve dignity and freedom from exploitation.” Seventy-five percent agreed that “if employers are allowed to get away with mistreating immigrant workers, it ends up lowering wages and hurting conditions for American workers as well.”

Unsurprisingly, Rep. Steve King and Sen. Jeff Sessions are trying to exploit the Boston tragedy to derail immigration reform, just as previous opponents of reform exploited the tragedy of 9/11. We won’t let it happen again. We need civil rights and worker protections in this country now more than ever, and we intend to win them.

U.S. immigration policy has to catch up with what the overwhelming majority of Americans know. This bill is just the beginning of that process. We look forward to working with those in Congress who are champions of workers’ rights to improve this bill—to include all 11 million, to unify families, to protect workers’ rights, and to make sure that future immigration to the United States comes with dignity.

NGA Executive Director Saket Soni and NGA Legal Director J.J. Rosenbaum are available for analysis and comment on specific provisions of the bill.

CONTACT: Stephen Boykewich, stephen@guestworkeralliance.org, 323-594-2347

Deal Pending on Immigration Reform – KCRW – 4/1/13

Deal Pending on Immigration Reform
KCRW

Warren Olney
April 1, 2013

Just as Senators of both parties were announcing that “comprehensive immigration reform” was finally a done deal, it turned out that it might not be after all.  Will a guest-worker program for unskilled immigrants kill it again, or will it be border security, a “path to citizenship” or one of the other complications that have scuttled it in the past? NGA Executive Director Saket Soni discusses the proposed expansion of the guestworker program and the labor protections that need to be included.

Skip to 8:00 for the immigration piece.

http://www.kcrw.com/news/programs/tp/tp130401deal_pending_on_immi

Striking Guest Workers Will Take McDonald’s Fight Global – The Nation – 4/1/13

Striking Guest Workers Will Take McDonald’s Fight Global

The Nation

Josh Eidelson
April 1, 2013

Following demonstrations outside McDonald’s headquarters and CEO Don Thompson’s home, striking guest workers will hold an international day of action on June 6. The fifteen strikers, all students who came to the United States on cultural exchange visas, plan to lay the groundwork in their home countries over the next two months.

The National Guestworker Alliance, the labor group spearheading the strike, said that McDonald’s had failed to address the wages the workers were still owed, their demands for reforms to avert abuse and their call for a meeting with Thompson. “He thinks if we go back to our country the problem is solved,” said striker Rodrigo Yañez. But “we’re going to keep the fight up in our countries, and we’re going to make it grow.”

“They didn’t count on the guest workers to supersize their campaign,” NGA Director Saket Soni said in an e-mail to The Nation. McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment.

As The Nation first reported, the students walked off the job on March 6 over allegations including unpaid wages, repeated retaliation, substandard (employer-owned) housing and shifts of up to twenty-five consecutive hours. The J-1 visa program, under which the students came to the US from Asia and Latin America, is administered by the US State Department, which workers allege failed to aggressively address the abuse. Over the past four weeks, the workers have traveled from Central Pennsylvania to actions in Philadelphia, New York, Washington and Chicago. “We met with Americans that have been in the same situation we experienced,” said Yañez. “That’s been a cultural exchange for us.”

A McDonald’s spokesperson told The Nation on March 14 that the company was ending its relationship with Andy Cheung, the franchisee who had directly employed the striking workers, and that the company had “offered to have the most appropriate person in our management team meet with the student directly to address and resolve their concerns.”

In Washington, DC, workers visited congressional offices; striker Fernando Acosta told The Nation that they urged legislators to include the battery of immigrant worker protections known as the POWER Act in a comprehensive immigration reform deal. “We are sharing all of our stories,” said Acosta. “The same thing happened to other people.”

The McDonald’s strike has played out against the backdrop of immigration talks involving organized labor, business and key senators. In a Saturday statement, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka announced “an agreement in principle” in the ongoing negotiations between the labor federation and the US Chamber of Commerce “to develop a new type of employer visa system.” According to the AFL-CIO, the proposed new “W visa” would come with stronger protections for workers, including: the chance to petition for permanent status after one year; not being tied to a specific employer; a Department of Labor complaint process; and a prohibition on employers shifting program fees to employees.

McDonald’s strikers will begin returning to their home countries this week. Workers said that the shape and scope of the June 6 day of action have not yet been determined. It won’t be NGA’s first foray into cross-border organizing; as I report in this month’s Dissent, the organization has also partnered with the Mexico-based human rights group ProDESC to organize Mexican guest workers in their hometowns before and after their annual trips to work in the United States.

“McDonald’s could make all this go away,” said Soni. “They could take responsibility for what happened to these guest workers inside their stores. They could adopt labor standards as they’ve promised. Or they could look forward to a long hot summer…”

http://www.thenation.com/blog/173601/striking-guest-workers-plan-global-actions-against-mcdonalds


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